Making Strange Stuff Familiar: A Conversation with Joan Slonczewski
Joan Slonczewski's last novel, Brain Plague, was released in 2000. Much has changed in the world since then, and so has Slonczewski's writing. Her recent novel, The Highest Frontier, is both more concerned with politics than her previous novels and somehow more gentle.
Slonczewski is the author of the Elysium Cycle, which consists of the novels A Door into Ocean, Daughters of Elysium, The Children Star, and Brain Plague. Her stand-alone novels include Still Forms on Foxfield, The Wall Around Eden, and, of course, the recent The Highest Frontier. She also co-authored the undergraduate textbook, Microbiology: An Evolving Science with John W. Foster.
Educated at Bryn Mawr College, Slonczewski holds a Ph.D. in Molecular Biophysics and Biochemistry from Yale University and currently teaches at Kenyon College. She has won awards for scientific research, teaching, and for writing, including the John W. Campbell Award.
Very much a biologist, a pacifist and a feminist, Slonczewski writes about microbes, ecological disasters, nanotechnology, and genetic engineering. Her richly textured new novel explores the complexities of politics, privilege, and human perseverance (as shown through the story of one young woman). By looking back to the pre-Colombian and post-contact culture of the Iroquois and forward to the 22nd Century, Slonczewski offers solutions to present day problems.
Or as she puts it below, her fiction offers a "way out".
The human race, Slonczewski seems to be saying, is not necessarily doomed; it is merely listening to the wrong voices, acting on the wrong impulses.
The world of Slonczewski's The Highest Frontier is intricately developed and thoroughly immersive, but it is the inhabitants of that world who really set this novel apart, especially the quirky professors and the main character, Jenny Ramos.
Before we get started, I have to ask: are you and Jenny Ramos similar at all?
Jenny Ramos is a lot like me, when I first went to college. I felt overwhelmed with new things, met friends from exotic places, fell in love—and had to experiment with living creatures that wouldn't cooperate.
What do you enjoy about writing fiction?
I love to imagine a dialog with readers, to share the amazement of discovering a new world. And then return to our world to realize, "So that's how this awesome planet works." For instance, "invasive species" we think of as the worst weeds and pests. But what if a weed like kudzu became so pervasive that we depended on it, like grass and pine trees? Then you come back to Earth and realize that lots of life we take for granted—like earthworms in North America—are "invasive."
If a continent can survive earthworm invasion, maybe there's hope for our planet. Maybe a student can go to college and help save the world. Students invented recycling and Earth Day, and helped elect our first Black president. Saving Earth while launching for Jupiter will be hard—but here's how to start.
What's at the heart of Hard Science Fiction?
At Kenyon, I teach "Biology in Science Fiction" for students in the arts and humanities. And my students taught me how science needs to reach them. In my books, the science emerges as a seamless part of everyday life. Experiments fail; and others succeed in ways no one expected. For instance, Jenny Ramos Kennedy tries to build a nervous system into a plant; but then the plant turns the experiment back on her.
The first chapter of The Highest Frontier is dense—and utterly compelling. What does a first chapter need to do in general and in a Hard SF novel in particular?
Everything! Introduce the characters, the setting, and make the strange new stuff seem familiar. Mainstream fiction makes the ordinary extraordinary. Science fiction does the opposite—the extraordinary becomes commonplace. In The Highest Frontier, what's commonplace is that everyone has this "toybox" in their head that connects a hundred virtual worlds at once. And you go up to college in a cylinder that looks like an inside-out planet. Because it's so tiny, all the animals are miniaturized: mini-deer, teddy-bears, and mini-elephants (with whom the students do unmentionable pranks.)
The Highest Frontier is so rich with detail. Where did you even start with this novel?
I began this book ten years ago, after completing Brain Plague (about microbes that take over the brains of artists and convince them to make scandalous art). For The Highest Frontier, I collected layers upon layers of characters and world-bits: The toyboxes, the nutty professors, the alien ultraphytes. After 9/11 I had to pause a few years, because the event had such impact on my mind. But then, once New Yorkers started telling jokes and selling Twin Towers souvenirs, I started writing again.
How did 9/11 affect your writing?
The Twin Towers became a background theme of my story. The idea of "twin-ness" is everywhere. Most of the students are twins, because parents think having twins is the "efficient" way to have a family. Jenny's twin died in a flood caused by global climate change. But Jenny overcomes her tragedy to live a full life—like many New Yorkers had to do.
What intrigued me was how in the second tower, a voice came on telling people not to worry, to go back up to work because this tower is ok. I wonder: How many of us would listen to that voice? Don't we hear voices like that every day, saying, "Don't worry about climate change or economic collapse, just get back to work." My science fiction offers way out—a way forward to say, "We can do something for our planet."
Which scene in The Highest Frontier, surprised you the most, as the writer?
One of my favorite scenes to write was when the history professor channels Teddy Roosevelt through a virtual world. The students have to go in and ask Teddy questions, while his bodyguard tries to scare them off. What surprised me is how many of my older friends loved the book; the strongest reviews have come from grandparents, who get all the jokes. My book is set a hundred years from now, but it also looks back a hundred years to the American frontier, the Iroquois and how they reacted to the colonists—then it compares how we today might react to alien invaders. For instance, the Iroquois called the European colonists "Salt Beings" because they over-salted their food. In my book, the alien ultraphytes are halophiles (life that needs high salt). So Homeworld Security tries to ban table salt, with ludicrous results.
What's next for Jenny and Frontera College?
Well, Jenny has three more years left of college—if Earth survives. Without spoilers, I'll just say that depends on my readers. I'd like to hear which characters they liked best, and where they might go. One reviewer liked best the gay married couple that runs the college, so you can bet they'll return.
Any parting words?
I love hearing from readers. Feel free to visit my website at biology.kenyon.edu/slonc/slonc.htm or friend me on Facebook.